Foresight in Organisations Revisited

A few years ago I took a Masters unit of study about Foresight in Organisations.  In its early iteration the unit covered several topics:

∙ Conceptual theories of strategic planning: Alfred Chandler‘s structure and strategy, Michael Porter‘s 5 Forces model and contributions to industrial economics, Gary Hamel & C.K. Prahalad‘s early work on core competencies and industry whitespaces, and Henry Mintzberg‘s eloquent critique of the strategic planning function.

The operational span of strategic planning including an overview of
business units, corporate level strategy, and multi-national

∙ Good practices in change management and organisational interventions such as Elliott Jacquesrequisite organisation, Ralph Stacey’s shadow or informal networks in organisations, Richard Hames‘ strategic navigation, and Peter Senge‘s view on learning organisations.

∙ Practitioner reflections and post-implementation case studies on creating a foresight function in organisations from Andy Hines, Sohail Inayatullah, Peter Hayward and Joe Voros.

The most fun part was a lunch with Hines around the launch of the Association of Professional Futurists.

student cohort grasped several hypotheses from these topics: (a) the
limits of traditional strategic planning in a complex environment, (b)
the emergence of anticipatory management and strategic foresight as two
new paradigms, and (c) how the foresight function may be embedded in
organisational culture.

In retrospect three broad trends may have influenced the topics and hypotheses:

Hamel & Prahalad’s view led a new wave of practitioners to frame
the foresight function as a managerial core competence in pragmatic
strategic thinking (thanks to Mike McAllum
for his practitioner insights on Hamel’s influence).  In the contract
phase of a consulting engagement this meant the practitioners often
linked foresight to growth options, visioning and corporate strategy. 
Clients were receptive, partly due to Hamel & Prahalad’s solutions
at the firm and competition levels.  More broadly, exogenous factors
played a major role in creating the macroeconomic climate for client
demand: the 10-year Juglar business cycle, the late 1990s Internet bubble and the M&A wave of European industry consolidation.

Hamel & Prahalad’s work coincided with the diffusion of new
frameworks for organisational interventions from management theorists
into consulting firms.  Senge’s systems modelling at MIT’s Society for Organisational Learning and Arie de Geus‘s scenarios work at Royal Dutch Shell
were two such frameworks.  If Hamel & Prahalad provided the
strategic rationale, then Senge, de Geus and others suggested the
intervention points: how a forward view and systems awareness could
enhance managerial decisions about corporate strategy.  However this
alignment of the foresight function with strategic thinking did not
explore other potential intervention points: cost management systems,
project hurdle rates for risk-return, and operations management. 
Attention to these would bridge the strategy|operations divide in
organisations that demand quantifiable results.

(3) An
alternative route for contract phase buy-in was to connect the
foresight function with a hot topic that interested the client.  On the
upside, this was a way to raise awareness of dynamics, forces, trends
and challenges beyond the firm or market.  On the downside, the buy-in
now depended on the currency of the hot topic, the differential
diagnosis skills of the practitioner, and the value created by the
solutions.  If the hot topic waned, so might the buy-in for the
foresight function.

With the benefit of five years hindsight I now see how some barriers to Foresight in Organisations might be avoided.

in Organisations gives students a grounding philosophy that informs
their consulting approach.  However its philosophy is also a relatively
young discipline with multiple schools of thought and stances, and in
competition from other frameworks, methodologies and stances for client
dollars.  This poses translation challenges between the Foresight
practitioner and their client that arise in the contract, data
collection and implementation phases of a consulting engagement. 
Clarity on how philosophy informs rationale may help the engagement go

The Foresight practitioner also faces cognitive biases
and judgments that can affect their consulting decisions during an
organisational intervention.  The Foresight practitioner’s enthusiasm
for Foresight as a normative stance and silver bullet solution can set them up to fail or give their solutions a shorter half-life.  Specific cognitive biases that the Foresight practitioner may be prone to include positive illusions about their implementation competencies, illusion of control
over others, and unrealistic optimism about the likelihood of
organisational transformation.  The client may also have a shadow
agenda about power and the direction of organisational change which can
blindside any intervention.  Finally, as the Foresight practitioner is
not embedded in the organisation their enthusiasm for change can
trigger defensive routines from others that may delegitimate the
practitioner, block the microprocesses for change, or derail the
organisational intervention.

I learnt the most from the war
stories of other Foresight practitioners: what worked, what didn’t, how
and why interventions failed, and what was done the next time.  You may
mess up as others have messed up before you.  Now I have my own war
stories to add . . .